For everyone who has ever wanted to leave life behind and start all over again with an entirely new identity, meet Dennis Rarick. Better yet, meet Leonard Cohn, The Sequel.
Rarick was 35, a prominent figure in mathematics and computer science, a brain who had presented his papers on linear computing to fellow scientists at The Hague.
But on a hot, humid day in August, 1976, mired in a personal black hole of depression, Rarick walked out of his Bethesda, Md., apartment. He left behind his wallet, his private papers, his car, and a cryptic note that his father remembers saying:
“I’m going on the kind of a trip where you never come back.”
The 14-year trip has come to an end in San Marcos, where Dennis Rarick turned Leonard Cohn has surfaced, alive and well and successful and now busily explaining to family and friends--and his wife for the last 10 years--how he ended one life and started another.
His father says he doesn’t want to ask too many questions. A brother says it figured Dennis would surface somewhere, somehow. His current wife is reconciling herself to finding out that her husband has a past, that he’s seven years older than the age on his driver’s license--and that she has a father-in-law.
Even the bureaucracy is catching up with Leonard Cohn--or Leonard Dennis Rarick, the name he plans to adopt.
Court officials back in Maryland--where Rarick was listed as “presumed dead,” have now officially declared him very alive. The Internal Revenue Service has even refunded Rarick $7,700 for taxes assessed on an inheritance that Rarick’s estate shouldn’t have been assessed because he never died.
Cohn came clean with his history last Christmas, although word of his two lives has only just surfaced because he went back to court last week in Montgomery County in Maryland to clear up some records.
What caused him to unveil his background?
“There was no single event or critical thing. But it took a number of years to get over my emotional problems, and quite a few more years to gather the strength to come forward and tell the world what I had done,” said Cohn, a quiet, soft-spoken man who is now 49 and who owns a company in Mira Mesa that even he has trouble describing. “I’m a mathematician. I’m an algorithm design engineer. I solve problems.”
He spent Life No. 2 productively: getting a master’s degree and doctorate in computer science, marrying, having two sons, building a successful business.
His wife of 10 years, Martha Weaver--a San Diego opera singer who maintains her maiden name for professional reasons--recalls that night last Christmas season when she got the word that Leonard Cohn, her husband, was also Dennis Rarick, presumed dead.
“He chose an evening when he knew I didn’t have a choir rehearsal. He said, ‘There’s something very serious I have to talk to you about.’ My first reaction was that he was ill. I never expected to hear what he told me.”
Over dinner, and in the ensuing weeks, he explained how he had concocted much of his personal history. “I had told her I didn’t have a family and there were no records (of me) because I was a draft dodger,” he said. When he set the record straight, Weaver was dazed.
“It was a shock, like someone had died,” she said.
Cohn then contacted his parents in Nashville, Ind., by writing them a letter that was delivered by an old friend.
“I was sitting in my easy chair when the phone rings,” recalled Keith Rarick, 76. “A woman who I knew--she was a friend of Dennis'--said, ‘I talked to Dennis today.’ This was the first I knew that he was alive.”
The woman said Cohn had left a letter for her to deliver to his parents. Please read it now, the elder Rarick asked. “It was apologetic. It said something like, ‘I can never repay you for the hurt and damage I’ve done.’ ”
Ask him to call me, the father said.
“His voice sounded great. But there was sadness, too, that his mother could not be here to hear him,” he said. She had died four years earlier.
Keith Rarick had watched over his son’s estate, and finally--10 years after his disappearance--completed the necessary court papers that declared him “presumed dead.”
“We never went to the extent of hiring private investigators to look for him,” he said. “One of my other sons said it might be a mistake to try to trail him because we might trigger a negative reaction like a suicide if he didn’t want to be found. So we sat quietly and waited for events to happen on their own.”
Father and son reunited in person last May.
For his part, Leonard Cohn said changing identities was not difficult. He moved to New York City and lived for several months on money from savings he took with him.
For a new identity, he visited a cemetery, found the name Leonard Cohn--who had died as a child--on a tombstone, got the birth certificate and re-established a new paper trail for himself.
He hung out at Columbia University, impressed professors with his proficiency on computers and got a job. Claiming to be self-taught without even a high school degree, he was enrolled as a master’s degree student--and then earned his doctorate.
He met Weaver in New York; they married and found their way to the West Coast, where they established themselves in the northern San Diego County community of San Marcos with their two sons, ages 9 and 7, and where Cohn runs his mathematics trouble-shooting company.
Bridging the two identities has had its moments, the couple noted.
“When his family calls,” she said, “they say, ‘Uh, is Den-uh-Len-uh-Den there?”
Said Cohn: “She can’t believe I’m really seven years older than what my driver’s license says,” he said with a laugh. “I told her you’re only as old as you say you are.”